Bill Mitchell

1941-1994    |    WA & NSW    |    Cartoonist

Bill Mitchell was a larrikin, popular and self-effacing cartoonist whose style was followed by many others in Australia and America. His combination of superb draughtsmanship and wicked satire won him Stanley awards for best editorial cartoonist three times and his best-known strip, Bustards of the Bush, earned him the best comic strip artist award in 1988. Mitchell worked for The West Australian, The Daily Telegraph in Sydney and The Australian. When he was dying of leukaemia in 1989, staff at The Australian queued to donate blood and News Corp instituted an annual award in his name to encourage young cartoonists and artists.

The Air Force knocked me back because my eyes were crook, so I ended up becoming a press artist.

Bill Mitchell


William 'Bill' Mitchell


William “Bill” Mitchell believed that a cartoon must look funny as well as having a funny caption. And if anyone should have known what it took to make a cartoon funny, it was Bill. He spent more than 25 years making Australians laugh, and by the 1980s was recognised as one of Australia's best cartoonists.

Mitchell held very strong political views, leaning to the right, but he never let them get in the way of a good gag. He came into cartooning when darkly-shaded cartoons were all the rage, but influenced other cartoonists away from that style to lighter, simpler lines.

Born in Kalgoorlie in 1941, Mitchell moved to Perth at the age of 15. Originally, he had no ambition to be a cartoonist. He once recalled: "When I left school, I got a job as a copy boy with The West Australian to fill in the time before joining the Air Force. It was good money and I didn't have to do much. They put me into the art department for no other reason than that's where they had the vacancy. The Air Force knocked me back because my eyes were crook, so I ended up becoming a press artist".

Mitchell started submitting cartoons in 1969 and soon was appointed the paper's daily cartoonist – the first since it began publication in 1834.

He moved to Sydney in 1978 to work on The Daily Telegraph as the daily cartoonist, replacing Frank Benier, and then transferred to The Australian in 1980 after Larry Pickering resigned. While working on The Australian he also syndicated some of his cartoons through the American "Views of the World" service and they appeared in newspapers in America, the United Kingdom, France and Newsweek magazine.

At the first Stanley awards in 1985 conducted by the Australian Black and White Artists’ Club (now the Australian Cartoonists’ Association) Mitchell was full of life and the star of the night, dancing across the stage with a straw hat (borrowed from Rigby) and cane to collect his award.

Two years later, it was doubtful he was going to be able to even come to the function. In 1987 he had been diagnosed with leukaemia. His health had deteriorated to the point that it was unusual for him to even leave his home in the Sydney suburb of Beverly Hills let alone attend a dinner in the city with 400 guests.

Mitchell was going to collect his second Stanley, but it was a secret. His wife Rhonda was told about the award and asked if she thought he would like to come and if she thought it possible. The answer was "yes" to both questions, but only if a few precautions were taken. One was that a quiet room should be available if he needed a rest during the night. The second was that, as the function was being held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, a little bit isolated from the main business area of Sydney, the ambulance service needed to be told that there was just a chance they might get a call, if he had a bad turn.

Mitchell arrived at the function in a wheelchair. He sat through the night, got his award, and went home grinning. None of the safeguards was needed.

When Mitchell’s health was really bad, he hardly had the strength to continue cartooning. He spent much of this time confined to bed at home, only leaving the house for chemotherapy. However, he continued to supply daily cartoons to The Australian.

He would listen to the radio and read the daily papers trying to think of something funny to cartoon on. When he did come up with something, he would get out of bed and go to work on a drawing board set up in the bedroom. Those reading the paper the next day never knew how hard he had to work to make them laugh.

By 1989, Mitchell was getting steadily weaker. The editorial cartoonist for The Daily Telegraph, Paul Zanetti, came up with a way to ensure his friend would be remembered for the way he supported and encouraged other cartoonists. Zanetti wanted to establish a a memorial award through News Corp to encourage an artist under the age of 25 and not employed by a major newspaper or magazine to pursue a career as a black-and-white artist.

Mitchell sculpted the award, a Bustard from the Bush, and the $2000 cheque came from The Australian. The original intention was to have the award presented by Bill Mitchell at the annual Stanley Awards if he was well enough. Of course, at the time the award was created nobody actually expected him to live long enough to do so.

To everyone's surprise, throughout 1990 Bill began to go into remission. By the time the awards came around in November, he had begun to put on a bit of weight, of which he was quite proud. When called to the stage to present the award, he introduced himself: "Hi. I'm Bill Mitchell, and I'm here to present the Bill Mitchell Memorial Award". It brought the house down, and not a few emotional tears.

After going into remission, Mitchell decided to move from the suburbs of Sydney and relocate in the bush, a few kilometres out of the NSW country town of Muswellbrook, from where he continued to fax his cartoons to The Australian. However, the leukaemia returned and despite chemotherapy he died in May 1994.

Lindsay Foyle is a cartoonist, journalist, cartooning historian and a past president of the Australian Cartoonists’ Association.

"So this is peace", 1972. Courtesy of Lindsay Foyle and the Australian Cartoonists' Association


1982 cartoon in The Australian. Courtesy of Lindsay Foyle and the Australian Cartoonists' Association


1985 cartoon in The Australian. Courtesy of Lindsay Foyle and the Australian Cartoonists' Association


1993 cartoon in The Australian. Courtesy of Lindsay Foyle and the Australian Cartoonists' Association





Further reading


Only When I Laugh, Bill Mitchell, Maxwell Printing, 1981


The Word of Mitchell, Bill Mitchell, Birnbaum, 1995